In creating a socially constructed category, people chose to look at certain arbitrary similarities between a group of people, and socially define that group by them.
During your diversity and inclusion work you may have come across the idea that many categories of identification are actually “social constructs.” Given the impact of very real systems of oppression that use these categorisations, we need to know where they came from. With the following explainer, you will learn how the distinctions so commonly attributed to different groups are not based in truth, but were created to serve those already in power. You can then confidently identify how these constructs continue to be used to further oppression of marginalised groups.
While there are many differences between humans, only some differences get attributed certain meanings that lead to particular outcomes like racism or sexism. Let’s look at a simple example to start: People who wear the same shoe size do not often classify themselves as a unique group with shared experience. But why isn’t shoe size given a meaning that leads to alternative outcomes for people who are say size 9+ versus those who have a shoe size that’s smaller?
In creating a socially constructed category, people chose to look at certain arbitrary similarities between a group of people, and socially define that group by them. This is problematic because there are actually more differences within a group of people who are for example “White” than there are between “White” and “Black” people. But the categorisation of people into distinct groups is not random or even necessary, rather it has served as a tool to justify unequal distributions of power throughout time. The diagram below breaks down the process by which this occurs:
It’s not that the categories came from nature and then humans created systems of oppression afterward. People accrued power and established hierarchies by creating categories that could establish their ‘superiority’. Institutions considered to be our ‘beacons of truth’ — science, law, politics — were tasked with evidencing and encoding these false hierarchies into law, which led to the social constructs and methods of oppression we see today.
Today, we still use categories like race/ethnicity, nationality, gender, and disability because we must address the deeply-rooted negative outcomes these systems of oppression created. By taking the time to understand the origins of some of these social constructs, we can combat hierarchical agendas that justify the oppression of groups by deeming them inferior. Additionally, we position ourselves to see the world through an anti-oppressive lens that spends less time debating constructed differences, and more time disrupting the institutions that uphold them. Let’s break down a few:
Today people often understand race or ethnicity to indicate biological and physical characteristics that sometimes align with a particular geographical culture. However, legal scholar Tanya K. Hernandez writes that racial identity is formed through “the social experience of being consistently viewed as distinct.” If we know that over 99% of human DNA is the same, and variation occurs more between individuals than ethnic groups, then where did the idea of race come from? Beginning in the 16th century, European colonisers in need of a cheap labour force positioned the colonised as inferior or less intelligent in order to justify their enslavement, exploitation and genocide. With the help of scientists, colonisers racialised Indians, Africans, and Native Americans in order to extract resources from them for a “superior” white class.
For example, in the 19th century Frederick Coombs developed a false study, claiming that Africans had smaller skulls that made them less intelligent than light-skinned Europeans. Again, this was intentional, in order to justify colonisation and the maintenance of power for White people. We can see how this negative idea of inferiority, though obviously wrong, persists today in how people of colour are denied professional opportunities for success or leadership in most industries.
Throughout history we can also find examples of people in power arbitrarily categorising people’s races based on politics. A common query in the U.S. today is why people of Arab descent are asked to categorise themselves as “White”, when many do not experience the privilege or safety of a White person. We can trace this back to the 20th century, when the U.S. only admitted White people as citizens, but when they wanted access to South West Asia/North Africa (SWANA) oil, agreed to label some migrants from SWANA nations as White in exchange.
In 20th century Germany too, Nazis attributed negative ideas about Jews being all-powerful and greedy to an “unchanging biologically determined heritage that drove the ‘Jewish race,’” in order to target them as enemies of the state and justify their genocide. It is these histories that reveal how race is constructed and used when it is convenient for those in power to benefit White Supremacy. When people attribute a group’s general success or failure today to its race, they erase the intergenerational impact of racism/colonialism on people of colour’s diminished access to medical care, housing, jobs, and resources.
Nationality today is used as both an important cultural signifier and an apparatus of securing or limiting freedom of movement. While for some people, what country you “belong to” is an innocent marker for sports allegiance or travel conditions, for many others it is used to deny asylum and safety through legal grounds. But when people from Europe are more frequently given citizenship in other Global North countries, while people from the Global South are consistently painted as criminal or lazy to justify their deportation, we know something more insidious must be occurring.
[Image description: In the top photo, three Syrian refugees sit atop their belongings at an internal displacement camp. In the bottom photo, a Ukrainian family proceeds to the refugee welcome centre in Berlin.] Top photo by Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images. Bottom photo by John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images
Borders today are a seemingly-less barbaric continuation of colonial-era restriction of resources to people from the Global South. For example, with a complete lack of recognition of African history, culture, or humanity, colonisers “divvied up” the continent purely out of competitive interest with other European powers. Even though these nations are formally independent today, the colonisers’ division of ethnic groups across borders has led to civil war and violence that threatens the stability of many African countries. Denying asylum then, to people fleeing conflict created by the same nations they seek aid from, upholds colonial oppression. If we can instead visibilise how nationality and borders were constructed out of colonial tactics for power, we can prioritise the dignity, safety, and freedom of people globally.
Many societies today classify people into a binary of male or female to point to seemingly “biological” explanations for the social differences between these groups. However, the wide range of cultural variations around gender norms tells us that these characteristics are not inherent to people of different genders. While the terms “sex” and “gender” are often conflated, sex refers to one’s sex characteristics (such as genitalia, hormones, chromosomes, and secondary sex characteristics developed during puberty), of which there are many combinations, and gender indicates unique self-identifications and expressions. So while someone’s sex assigned at birth may have been ‘female’, their gender could be ‘man’. While institutions like the media, government, medical systems, and religious organisations project narratives of a strict gender binary that assigns people into either the male or female category, these often do not align with the way many people express their gender through things like action, dress, and demeanour. In reality, characteristics that have no inherent biological attachment are assigned to genders to reinforce the binary. As these characteristics are not fixed and frequently change over time and culture, they clearly must have been constructed.
For example, we see how the attributes that are in many cultures and societies assumed to designate someone as a woman today (such as long hair, makeup, or a caring nature) are frequently expressed by a range of genders. But these characteristics are precisely what was praised about regal and wealthy men who had long wigs, dresses, and a gentle manner in 18th century Europe. Additionally, while a multiplicity of fluid genders have existed throughout time, namely in Indian, Native American and Aboriginal cultures, the project of colonialism necessitated their erasure in order to enforce a strict gender binary that is designed to privilege men. By claiming that anyone who is not a cisgender man is biologically inferior, men are given a rightful claim to positions of power, leadership, and control. This ultimately legitimises the oppression of trans and non-binary people, which is rampant in negligent healthcare systems and the increasing murder of trans women of colour, especially.
[Image description: On the left, a photo of two 2Spirit people in 1990s Montana wearing long garments with long hair and jewellery. On the right, a painting of a 17th century white Britishman in a long red garment, a long white wig, and makeup. ] First photo by John H. Fouch. Second painting by public domain.
But the reality is that the construction of the gender binary does not just create violence against marginalised genders, though that is its purpose. Its stringent interpersonal enforcement leads to harmful limitations on cisgender people’s gender expressions as well, with men stigmatised against sharing emotions which are deemed ‘feminine’ and committing suicide at accelerated rates. By instead visibilising the construction of the gender binary, people could express themselves without certain qualities being attributed to their gender identity, and denied access to resources and opportunities as a result.
Many people are familiar with the medical model of disability, which positions disability as a problem in a person’s body that needs to be fixed. The social model, however, recognises that disability is a “disadvantage that stems from a lack of fit between a body and its social environment.” This definition emphasises how policies and opportunities are designed to prioritise and normalise non-disabled people and cognition, while constructing the disabled experience as something inferior and scary. In the social model, the dis-abling factor then is the very design of our societies which actively creates and maintains barriers for disabled folks. So in this model, disability is socially constructed, and is not inherently biological.
While the medical model has its uses, such as allowing access to medical treatment, there is an over-reliance on this model that fails to recognise the social model. The medical model has become so ingrained, that people do not often acknowledge how they will be disabled by society at some point in their lives, whether through an immobilising accident, the slowing-down process of ageing, or increasingly common cases of long-Covid. Though people use all sorts of support to meet their daily access needs (think: stairs, alarm clocks, or glasses), these often go unacknowledged in order to “normalise” a certain type of non-disabled person, that positions other access needs as “abnormal”. Once we see how it is actually society that disables people, we can shift the burden of responsibility for access away from disabled folks and onto institutions to redesign transportation, job opportunities, and medical care to meet a diversity of needs.
While there are many other social constructs, these are just a few to get you started on understanding how they function in society today. By recognising the social construction of these categories, and interrupting the false logic that they are naturally encoded by ‘nature’, we can identify how these logics continue to be used to justify marginalisation and inequitable distributions of systems of power. However, when people from marginalised communities reclaim and celebrate their identities today through things like Black History Month or LGBTQ+ Pride, it is important to understand this as a collective resistance tactic in response to historical and continued oppression, rather than an affirmation of negatively held ideas about that group. It’s why the idea of a White, Straight, or Male “pride” is so ridiculous — because claiming ownership of a legacy of supremacy only reinforces how privileged people have accumulated success, resources, and legitimacy at the expense of others.
Now that you understand how justifications for marginalisation were created out of oppressive systems of power, you can work to disrupt their compounded consequences today. If these categories are socially constructed for marginalisation, how could we socially re-construct them for equity? How do we socially reconstruct gender as a more fluid, diverse and non-essentialist aspect of who we all are? How do we listen to People of Colour’s characterisations of the empowered elements of their communities? How might these things change our language, our organisational infrastructure, or our storytelling? Using these questions, perhaps you can assess your workplace policies to determine whether they are equitable. For example:
- Do leaders and HR understand how race, gender and disability are socially constructed and apply this in the decisions they make regarding inclusion and beyond?
- Do your parental leave policies explicitly acknowledge gender as fluid and diverse?
- Do you regularly audit how your organisation itself may be disabling people because they are neurodiverse?
- Are buildings and events accessible to all?
- Are you ensuring that limited, colonial ways of thinking about race and nationality are not reinforced by the way you gather data? Think about the racial or nationality categories you use and what choices people have to make, in reference to them.
- Do you swiftly integrate people’s pronouns, gender, and/or name changes into HR processes?
- Do you interrogate the racial distribution of your leadership positions?
Or maybe you will start with addressing statements from colleagues like, “I’m all for diversity and inclusion, but I just don’t want us lowering the bar!” which uses that false idea that marginalised groups are inherently inferior to the white, non-disabled, cisgender people that dominate corporate leadership in the Global North. However you begin, you now have the tools to explain the origins and systemic impact of socially constructed categories of identification.